I've lived in the South Bend area for most of my life, and that means being unable to ignore Notre Dame football. There are not many people on the fence about Fighting Irish football. I remember in the fall of 1987 watching ND with my roommate John Sherk. Tim Brown returned a punt for a touchdown (I think against Michigan State) and John got up and yelled out the window, "Tim Brown is going to win the Heisman this year, and Notre Dame will win the national championship next year!!" I should have asked him for the winning Powerball number, because it turned out just as he called it.
After college, I was absent from the college football scene while we lived in Africa, and then went to graduate school. Those were the dark days at the end of the Holtz era, and I got back into ND football when we moved back to the area in 1998 and Bob Davie was the first of a string of unsuccessful coaches.
George O'Leary seemed to be tailor made for the job. Unfortunately his resume had some problems. How many SEC schools would have fired their coach for saying he earned a masters degree when he really only attended master's classes for awhile but never finished the program? It turns out that graduation is something that ND takes pretty seriously. On that count, one of my favorite lines ever from a coach during a press conference came from the next coach Tyrone Willingham when the big controversy about the academic standards for athletes was going on at ND. He was questioned whether he agreed with the school's policy about the admissions requirements for football players, because there were a lot of people saying that ND will never be competitive until they adopt standards similar to the SEC schools (counting is required; reading is optional). Willingham answered, "yes, I support the standard. I want smart kids. Who's out there saying, 'give me the dumb kids'??". But I'm afraid I was never a big Willingham supporter. I thought he got really lucky that first year starting off 8-0. After that, 13-15 is not going to cut it.
I'll admit, though, to being seduced by Charlie Weiss. I was at a ND basketball game soon after he was hired, and he sat there signing autographs with a massive Superbowl ring on his finger. I thought, "This is it; we're back." The ten year contract extension seemed a bit premature, but things were looking good. I was in the stands with my sons for the 2006 game against UCLA when we won on a final second pass to Jeff Samardijza. We went crazy. We were also there the next year against Air Force when we lost our ninth game of the season. That was a really big contract to buy out.
By this time, I was gun shy about next coach Brian Kelly. That first season I thought he was going to have an aneurysm on the sidelines almost every game. But I liked what he had to say about this being a process that would take some time (evidently Weiss didn't have the linemen lifting weights...). So here we are in year number three. It appears that the process has worked. The haters are out there (many of them in my extended family). But the facts are these:
- ND was unranked in the preseason, and will be the first of those to play in the championship game since BYU in the 80s.
- ND had the toughest schedule in the BCS as judged by the preseason ranking, including five teams ranked in the top 20.
- It turned out that Michigan, Michigan St. and USC were not all that good this year.
- ND got lucky when the kid from Pittsburgh missed a 30 yd field goal to keep us in that game.
- We're the only team who plays fair (sorry Buckeyes) who didn't lose during the regular season.
- There's something magical about year number 3 for ND coaches and for Brian Kelly.
Now we sit around and wait for 45 days until the next game. What a joke. More on my frustrations with college football to come...